Originalism and precedent: Baude v. Sunstein

Will criticizes Cass Sunstein for attacking an extreme form of originalism that Will says that no sophisticated originalists believe. Sunstein says that originalism threatens to destabilize the U.S. constitutional system by throwing into doubt apparently fundamental principles that are inconsistent with the original understanding (in such areas as equal protection, freedom of speech, and takings, among others). Or if it doesn’t–if one is a “faint-hearted” originalist who accepts precedent–then one isn’t an originalist at all. Will responds that sophisticated originalists do give weight to precedent, and thus Sunstein is attacking a straw man. Similarly, in response to an earlier post of mine, he said that an originalist might believe that the original understanding requires courts to defer to precedent; thus, originalism is not necessarily inconsistent with stability.

I’m skeptical of Will’s defense. For one thing, there is a confusion here between originalism-as-justification and originalism-as-interpretive-methodology. The debate–to the extent it has any practical relevance–is over the latter. If you persuade yourself that the original understanding justifies the methodology of the “living constitution,” and then you want to decide cases like Justice Brennan, Sunstein is not terribly worried about you. It’s like a theologian who argues against science by claiming that God chooses to make everything act according to the laws of physics and otherwise never intervenes. He preserves God but otherwise gives away the game.

Similarly, Sunstein will have little problem with originalists who give weight to precedent for other reasons, as long as they give enough weight to precedent that the original understanding itself rarely or never plays a role in actual judicial decision-making. Will is never very clear who the originalists are who take such an approach, but I, at least, haven’t found very many. Will himself appears to believe that the Supreme Court should revisit settled doctrine if new evidence of the original understanding emerges. If so, and he is certainly a sophisticated originalist, then Sunstein is not criticizing a straw man.

Will has a “big tent” theory of originalism that allows originalism to survive attacks like Sunstein’s because within that tent there is always a moderate version that critics like Sunstein have no problem with. (For another example, see here.) Since they remain standing, “originalism” survives. Will himself commits the fallacy of mood affiliation by suggesting that the extreme versions are unobjectionable because they occupy the same tent as the moderate versions that lack the features that Sunstein objects to.